Did you know you can control your heating and lighting from your smart phone?

Although... uh... why on earth would you want to?


You’ve seen those British Gas Hive adverts? The ones that tell you all the things you could be doing, such as making origami, racing badgers or taking your parrot on holiday while “Hive is busy controlling your heating at home”.


Now, I don't know about you, but in the days when I did have gas central heating, I never found interfacing with it to be something that warranted any kind of smart remote controlled solution. Generally, my cheap digital timer and mechanical thermostat just did their thang without my input for the most part.


I suppose if I lived alone and worked irregular hours then it might make sense from an efficiency point of view to be able to manage such things on the fly so that an empty house wasn't being heated needlessly, but I imagine most people don't feel the need to micromanage their boiler quite as much as British Gas may think. Indeed, I suspect that for everyone besides the gadget obsessed, the simple thermostat and timer controls found in any existing installation is quite enough.


It’s the same with smartphone controlled lighting or power. I worked at a house recently where “smart” light switches had been installed (fortunately not by me). It cost a vast amount of money just so the homeowner could open an app on his iPhone to dim the lights in any given room. I have the same technology at a fraction of the price – it’s called a dimmer switch and its only marginally less effort for me to get up off my arse to use it than to pull out the phone and open an app. I mean, it’s not like altering the light levels is something that needs to happen ten times a night and involves having to climb stairs, don safety equipment or go outside in the rain each time. There’s a knob on the wall two metres away, and it’s not really any bother to get up, give it a twiddle and get on with my evening.


LWRF
Wow! Look at this sales blurb! This could be you; trendy and kicking back chilled-style because you can turn on a light bulb from anywhere with internet access!


This is what the marketing people call the Internet of Things (IoT) and they spout guff about how one day your fridge will know when you’ve run out of gherkins and will automatically order more from Tesco, while your bathroom cabinet does the same for toothpaste and Tampax, because it’s all interconnected.


There are several serious concerns I have about this kind of pervasive connectivity technology which would probably prevent me from installing it if requested. Now, you may think I’m a Luddite, and indeed I’m no fan of I.T., but that’s actually through experience rather than ignorance. In a previous life I spent a good few years in that industry which saw me as a Microsoft certified technician, running my own consultancy/contracting business for five years and running a small Apple repair/teardown website. While I certainly don’t claim to have ever been an I.T. god, I did make a healthy enough living out of it for some years before turning my back on the industry for good to work in a field that generally moves at a slower pace.


So, when I see over-engineered I.T. ‘solutions’ to non-existent problems encroaching onto good, honest electrical installation territory, it evokes a sense of eye-rolling dread that it’s increasingly likely I’m going to be asked to install this sort of nonsense as prices come down and more people become exposed to it.


What’s wrong with it you may well ask? Well, here’s my non-exhaustive list of concerns....


Compatibility.
At the time of writing there are competing standards for IoT devices because, for the most part, software and hardware manufacturers don’t want to see their shiny stuff talking to anybody else’s shiny stuff. They want to lock you in as a customer and they don’t want you easily able to jump ship to whoever made the best or cheapest product. This means if you settle on Philips Hue as your smart lighting controller of choice, you might not be able to then fit lamps or switches made by GE, Belkin, Nest, Lightwave RF or anyone else. They *might* be compatible, but then again they might not, I really don’t know. To be sure of proper operation, if you buy an Acme home automation smart hub, you may find only Acme light bulbs and apps can be used. So, what happens if your chosen company goes bust or is bought out by a rival who doesn’t want the headache of legacy customer/product support? Suddenly that expensive investment may become a white elephant if nobody is making an app or products that support all the features you expected to have.


When it comes to mobile technology, all bets are off.
What if the manufacturer decides to drop support for your particular smartphone/tablet or operating system? Not every app can run on every gadget, and operating systems keep getting updated, kicking older devices out of the party. How can you be sure that your manufacturer will still be making software that suits your operating system of choice in the future? As an example, at the time of writing, Philips don’t officially support Windows Mobile, so what if you’d invested in their Hue technology but your phone contract has you tied to Windows Mobile for the next eighteen months? The same gadget-orientated people who’d like this kind of wizardry are also the kind of people who’d fork out for the newest and whizziest phone/tablet, but Belkin are one manufacturer of smart bulb technology whose WeMo product has already fallen foul of not being able to keep their app compatible with the cutting edge handsets as those with new Android Lollipop devices discovered last year. Whenever you update your phone/tablet, you risk losing the functionality of any app whose developers aren’t completely up to date.


Longevity and forced obsolescence.
It doesn’t matter how much you spend on that new mobile or tablet, the likes of Apple and Google will keep pissing out updates that will strangle it over time and it'll be the same for any smart accessories on the market today. Once a manufacturer decides they want you to upgrade to LightSwitch_2.0 then you can bet anyone who forked out on installing LightSwitch_1.0 throughout their home will be left in the dark. My perfectly functional Canon scanner was doing a fine job connected to my Mac running OSX Yosemite, however when I recently upgraded to OSX El Capitan the computer no longer talked to it. Apple had decided that whatever driver had been working was to be removed, and Canon decided they'd rather I buy a new scanner so they had no new compatible driver for me to download. Even when something is functional and working, when these tech gits decide they want you to buy something new, they'll simply cut you off with an update. Five years is a long time in the I.T. world; the busy broadband internet of 2005 was nothing like that of 2000 where only a minority of people had it in the home and then through dial-up. Apple was almost broke in 1997 but were on the up-and-up as the king of portable music players by 2002. Nokia and Blackberry were mobile giants in 2009 but were almost off the radar by 2014. The phone or tablet you have today is not the one you’ll be using five years from now, however five years is nothing for a light switch, socket or thermostat which ordinarily could reasonably be expected to last for decades, so if you’re investing in smart accessories throughout your home, are you doing so with an eye on it being just a short term investment?


Small company vs. big company.
So, you’re a gadget freak and you won’t be happy until you can operate your toaster from your iPad. Who do you invest in – a small tech company with a whizzy product, or a giant such as Google or Philips? Well neither way is safe. The small startups need to have a product that gets off the ground or they’ll run out of cash and disappear leaving you with unsupported and obsolete hardware. If the small companies have something of interest, then they may get bought out by the bigger boys but that doesn’t guarantee a future either. The buy-out may just be to kill the product off as it competes with an in-house technology. Maybe the buy-out is to do something with the product, but as Google showed when their Nest division bought the Revolv home automation company in 2014, if they decide it’s not doing the business then it gets shot in the head. In the case of IoT devices, there is often a server infrastructure that supports it. That is to say, your smartphone isn’t necessarily talking directly to your home automation equipment as standalone devices on the same WiFi network, but they are communicating via the Internet through a central server being run and maintained by the manufacturer. This was the downfall of Revolv, the powers that be who now own it deciding it’s either not profitable enough or not in line with the core business, so off go the servers, and without them the Revolv hardware that people spent good money on becomes useless once they’re excommunicated. Game over. That’s it. Any company will pull the plug at any time on any product if the shareholders or directors believe it's not viable to continue the R&D or support.

revolvRevolv. Thanks for buying our product and integrating it into your home - we hope you enjoyed the eighteen months it lasted.


Warranty support
All of a sudden your smart light bulbs don’t dim, change colour, flash or do what they’re supposed to when you stab at the screen on your smartphone. As the installer, where does that leave me when it comes to warranty support? Naturally you want me to fix the problem if you’ve paid me to install it, and of course I provide a no-quibble 24-month warranty on workmanship and supplied materials. The trouble is, I don’t know if it’s a hardware fault, a wiring issue or an I.T. problem. I’d have to put in the time to check nothing has gone awry with either the wiring or the various hardware elements, but for all I know it’s not working just because a background update has buggered the app, or malware has infected your device, or a centralised server outside of my control is offline, or communications with a centralised server is iffy. With such a diversity of manufacturers, devices and operating system variations, I simply wouldn’t have the time to figure out which particular element wasn’t doing its job in any given case. I could end up caught in the middle between the end user and multiple technical support departments whose Borg-like call centres each blame someone else for the problem. It’s a nightmare.


Security.
The more you expose yourself to the internet, the easier it is for you to be compromised. You’re in the hands of these tech companies and you have to trust their security won’t be breached; otherwise you may find someone else ends up controlling your smart gadgets, or worse, gaining your personal data via their app or databases. Sounds unlikely? Big names such as eBay, Samsung and Sony have had their pants pulled down in high profile snafus in the past. In 2016 Nissan fell foul with the app it has for its electric Leaf cars which could potentially allow anyone to control the heating or air conditioning of any Leaf automobile, flattening the battery if they had the inclination to do so. Nest, part of the Google omni-borg, has a smart thermostat which was shown to have a security flaw in 2014. In fact, it was in this same year that the Heartbleed bug was uncovered; a massive security hole which had been around for years and affected one of the most fundamental aspects of the web: secure transaction handling. The trouble is, when such vulnerabilities are uncovered, they can often only be fixed by upgrades. So although it’s already twenty years since I first got onto the internet via Compuserve and a 9.6k Hayes modem, if it’s possible to come across something as fundamentally wrong with it as Heartbleed this far in, you do have to wonder what other forehead slapping discoveries may yet me made in the future. If it subsequently turns out your smart thermostat, smoke alarms and light switches are compromised at firmware level then you may find yourself having to perform updates on one or more devices. That sounds like a shit load of fun now doesn’t it?! Like updating your phone wasn’t enough of a chore, now you have to worry that your smoke alarm needs to be kept up to date to prevent someone gaining access through it! At best, a breach may allow someone to commit mischief as with the Nissan Leaf, at worst you could see data or personal information compromised.


Always connected devices.
When I say ‘always connected’, I don’t mean connected to the internet, I mean connected to the voltage supply. Whether it’s one of those USB charge sockets or a smart light switch, these things are electrical appliances in their own right, but they don’t come with an in-built off switch. These are permanently connected loads and should they go wrong, you might need to call out an electrician just to disconnect them. In my opinion there should be a regulation requiring any load to have a means of disconnection so there is always a switch somewhere on the device to give you the choice to click it off if needed. But there isn't, so if it goes faulty you have no way to isolate it short of turning off the whole circuit back at the consumer unit.


Wasted power consumption.
What’s the point of investing in energy saving measures such as LED lighting, loft insulation, thermostatic radiator controls and suchlike if you’re just going to pour lots of Watts down the drain on WiFi light switches, Bluetooth heating controllers, SmartHub receivers and whatever other paraphernalia is required just so you can dim the light or switch on the hot water from your phone occasionally? Even if not in active use, these things are mini-computers sucking 24-hour power from your supply.


Cost.
Even with prices dropping as competition increases, it’s always going to be much more expensive to have this techno-trash installed and commissioned over traditional devices. Electrical inspection and testing also becomes more difficult as I’m required by the Wiring Regulations to squirt 500 Volts into your wiring to check for insulation resistance failures, but smart accessories won't like that, and I’ll have to go around and wire them out to avoid damaging them. That extra time all goes onto the final bill folks.


Reliability.
Technology would be great if you knew it was built to last and would give you twenty years of bulletproof operation, but as we all know, the more complicated something is, the more likely it'll go wrong. What sounds more reliable to you in the long term, ten traditional mechanical light switches around your gaff or ten mini-computers which rely on communicating with a central hub and smart app? Which do you still be expecting to be working fault-free twenty years from now? Or ten? Or even five? Nest had to do a product recall on their smart smoke alarms because they were so technologically clever there was a chance they wouldn’t make any noise in the event of a fire! Personally I think I’ll stick with the non-smart but reliable interconnected alarms made by the likes of Aico, FireAngel and Chubb than trust something made by a subsidiary of Google who, incidentally, have a habit of dropping support for products and services at a whim (i.e. Google Code, Google Wave, Google Reader, Google Glass and now Revolv to name a few of their technologies resting in peace).


To sum up then, I view this kind of technology as expensive, unnecessary, wasteful, unsupportable, and an e-security risk. The companies pushing the tech give no guarantees of longevity or of rewarding customer loyalty and they'll only support a product until such time as they deem it no longer worthwhile for whatever reason.


If the manufacturers supported open standards, interoperability and released APIs for independent cross-platform app development then that would at least alleviate some of the issues, but as it stands I wouldn’t touch this stuff unless the client is happy to buy and support the hardware and simply wants me to wire it in and walk away.


The current mess IoT is in reminds me of the home computing market in the early Eighties when all sorts of tech and toy companies came out with competing and incompatible products. If you backed the likes of the Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum then you did alright, but if you spent your cash on ill-fated hardware such as the CGL Sord or Mattel Aquarius then you quickly saw your investment turn to dust as parent companies disappeared or model lines were discontinued just months after release. It seems the tech comapnies learned nothing from that, and 35 years later we're once again being flooded with short-life technology that's supposed to change our world but will leave many out of pocket until things settle down.


There's no doubt that IoT will encroach into homes, but hopefully much of it will be a flash in the pan like 3DTV. Sure, it's out there, but for the most part it rightly gets ignored by the mainstream who have better things to spend their money on than today's tech which quickly becomes tomorrow's tat.

 
Update 14/04/16
I'm appalled. Just five days after publishing this article, a flimmin' circular from Professional Electrician & Installer lands in my inbox promoting the new Vent Axia Svara - a Bluetooth app-controlled extractor fan.


Yes. You read that right. A frickin' fan. This is *exactly* the kind of nonsense I'm talking about. Show me one person, one person, who feels the need to control their toilet fan from their iPad! It's nuts. What really boils my piss is their website however...


svara


This is intelligence insulting PR cack which claims to make life easier for us poor dumb sparkies. Like getting wires into the right place and altering switch settings or jumpers is complicated to us? What do they think we do for a living?


I'll tell you what I don't do for a living - I.T. support. That means setting switches or jumpers would be less of a pain in my arse than downloading an app onto the customer's smartphone or tablet of choice, pairing it with this frickin' fan, stabbing at the screen to set it up and dealing with the warranty call six months later when the app isn't working after an OS update. Or because the Bluetooth pairing has been lost. Or because the customer has upgraded their phone. Or because the customer has a new phone with an incompatible OS. Or because the Bluetooth signal is out of range. Or because of an obscure incompatibility with Angry Birds 2. Or because Vent-Axia lose interest and drop support and app development. Or for a hundred other reasons that have nothing to do with the electrical supply.


Now, I like Vent Axia. When it comes to extractor fans, they and Xpelair are my brands of choice, but this is the kind of product that needs to be weeded out of the IoT vegetable garden. There's no call for it. It's unnecesary, it over-complicates an appliance that people have never felt the need to micro-manage on a regular basis. People don't want to think about their extractor fan, they just want it to work. Unless they switch it off via the isolator because it's too noisy when they have a wee in the middle of the night.


On most of my jobs, the client doesn't choose the extractor fan when a new one is to be installed, instead they rely on me to fit a quality brand with the right flow rate, low noise, and timer or humidistat options to suit the application. As far as Vent Axia are concerned, I'm their customer, and they've got it very wrong if they think they're pitching this thing at me. The marketing claims of it making my installation task easier are demonstrably daft, and there has been no thought into how we reputable installers provide customer aftercare and how a needlessly over-complicated device makes for a greater risk of a warranty callout, especially when my standard warranty is an extended 24 months. Would I expect this thing to work for two years with no kind of come-back? Frankly, no. The liklihood of an end client contacting me because their iPhone is no longer controlling their fan is too great, and I don't intend to lose valuable hours troubleshooting something I might not be able to fix because I require Google or Apple or Vent-Axia to fix a bug or provide an update.


Hopefully this product will have a short life. Good riddance to it and any other app-controlled stupidity, be it Bluetooth sandwich toasters, WiFi towel radiators or USB enabled deep fat fryers.


Update 28/05/16
More madness hits the headlines as Sainsbury's are sticking cameras in fridges so people can monitor their supplies and cut down on food waste.


Of course, this is just bullshit marketing nonsense and not an IoT product that's actually available to purchase, at least not yet. This 'trial' will amount to nothing once the headlines die down, but this kind of hype is what feeds the IoT ass-pain. Once the novelty wears off for those with the cameras and, lets face it, logging into an app to see how much trifle you have left in the fridge will only entertain for so long, then the cameras become redundant. So it's e-waste to save on food waste. More 'disposable' electronics being produced to satisfy a pointless requirement that people don't need in their lives. Anyone who gives a toss about food waste will already manage the contents of their fridge, those that aren't organised enough or who don't give a damn won't bother using their phone while standing in the ice-cream aisle of Asda to see how much vanilla soft scoop is already lurking in their freezer drawer.


In other news, Google have pulled the plug on yet another product. Although the Nexus Player wasn't an IoT gadget as such, it nonetheless shows again how the likes of Google have no long term plans for many of their technologies. This thing has only been around for 18 months and while it remains operation for now, no doubt the lack of support and updates will cripple it sooner rather than later.


Update 11/06/16
Any gadget freak who wants to set up their new Nest product this morning is out of luck...


nestdown


Devices are bricked out-of-the-box unless you can communicate with the manufacturer's server infrastructure. An outage or a manufacturer pulling support or going to the wall leaves you with an expensive paperweight. Who needs the hassle of basic devices like thermostats and smoke alarms that can't be set up and used because of a hiccup at the server end?

As they say on Dragon's Den.... I'm out.

YTB
YTB-XXI